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The Genocidal Mentality: Nazi Holocaust and Nuclear Threat.

The Genocidal Mentality: Nazi Holocaust and Nuclear Threat

Though this book rests on a questionable premise--that there is a common explanation for why some people could murder tens of millions during World War II and why other people can build and plan for nuclear wars--it nonetheless raises painful and disturbing questions and tries to explain how men and women can live normal lives while pursuing evil goals.

Robert Jay Lifton, distinguished professor of psychiatry and psychology at John Jay College and the City University of New York, and Eric Markusen, a sociologist teaching at Carthage College in Wisconsin, believe that, paradoxically, those who participate in the actual or potential killing of so many people can still love their wives and kids, sleep peacefully, and eschew any moral doubts.

Certainly many of our contemporary nuclear gang live quite comfortably, thank you. Academicians, neoconservatives, "defense intellectuals" and "strategists"--most of whom have never served on active military duty--pour out a stream of publications about "nuclear survivability," about "being ready to fight a nuclear war if necessary," and other tough game plans. Moreover, the subject is sexy and rewarding, often transforming these desk warriors into celebrities, while the existence of a vast technological capacity and commitment to the weapons invites and helps sustain the "genocidal mentality."

There is a paradox here. An SDI scientists can sincerely deny he is working on a "weapon of death," and workers at nuclear plants can reject as nonsense any suggestion that they are doing anything wicked, as A.G. Mojtabai pointed out in her brilliant if largely overlooked book Blessed Assurance, which deals with Bible-belt Amarillo, Texas, home of the final assembly plant for American nuclear weapons.

All the same, the comparison with the Nazi murderers is spurious, to say the least. The men who planned and executed the Holocaust were--together with the mass killer, Stalin--quite unlike the "crazy analysts" who dream and scheme about first-strike scenarios and battlefield victories. That they both require the collaboration of doctors, psychiatrists, engineers, physicists, social scientists, businessmen and political ideologists, as the authors argue, is no doubt true. But to insist that "troubling parallels" between the two establishes the connection is murky stuff indeed. The German physicians whom Lifton once interviewed and wrote about committed awful crimes; the "crimes" the lunatics and Strangeloves among us may one day commit haven't happened yet, though Lifton and Markusen believe--perhaps correctly, who knows?--that our nuclear weapons system "creates a threshold waiting to be crossed."

Even so, the authors are on to something. Like Germans who followed Hitler--perhaps like any people living in confusing times--post-World War II Americans seem to have needed an enemy to remain sane. When, for example, onetime Pentagon research director Herbert York concluded in 1960 that the Soviets were complying with the nuclear test moratorium, the venerable war hawk John McCone, then head of the Atomic Energy Commission, warned, "saying that was tantamount to treason."

Yet there were important people in Washington who grew to understand the risks entailed in ever using the weapons, men like Robert McNamara and Henry Kissinger. Both, write the authors, were victims of what they describe as psychic numbing, disavowal, and denial because the alternatives to mass destruction were either unachievable or unimaginable. McNamara, they write, was an early backer of "finite deterrence" but slowly shifted his views after learning what the think-tank people and their allies were really saying.

Henry Kissinger had some of the same concerns. An early supporter of cautious deterrence, he became increasingly bellicose after moving into Nixon's White House, going so far as to draft a memo in 1972 about "strategic sufficiency" and how it could "ensure the U.S. would emerge from a nuclear war in discernibly better shape than the Soviet Union." But after hanging around the war games theorists he finally uttered his now-famous complaint: "What in the name of God is strategic superiority? What is the significance of it politically, militarily, operationally, at these levels of numbers? What do you do with it?"

Robert Jay Lifton, Eric Markusen. Basic Books, $22.95.
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Author:Polner, Murray
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1990
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